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Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire

What distinguished the true alchemist from the fraud? This question animated the lives and labors of the common men—and occasionally women—who made a living as alchemists in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire. As purveyors of practical techniques, inventions, and cures, these entrepreneurs were prized by princely patrons, who relied upon alchemists to bolster their political fortunes. At the same time, satirists, artists, and other commentators used the figure of the alchemist as a symbol for Europe’s social and economic ills.

Drawing on criminal trial records, contracts, laboratory inventories, satires, and vernacular alchemical treatises, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire situates the everyday alchemists, largely invisible to modern scholars until now, at the center of the development of early modern science and commerce. Reconstructing the workaday world of entrepreneurial alchemists, Tara Nummedal shows how allegations of fraud shaped their practices and prospects. These debates not only reveal enormously diverse understandings of what the “real” alchemy was and who could practice it; they also connect a set of little-known practitioners to the largest questions about commerce, trust, and intellectual authority in early modern Europe.

280 pages | 13 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: European History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences

Sociology: Social History


"Alchemy and Authority does for the history of alchemy what the literature on quacks has done for the history of medicine: it approaches the blurry boundaries that define an individual’s success or downfall in a profession and in society. By asking, reconsidering, and answering the questions posed here, Nummedal speaks to historians of alchemy and science as well as to anyone intrigued by history and the mechanisms of economic systems, power, and authority. . . . . Her style is refreshingly concise and engaging. She is one of only a few academic authors who manage to confine and cionsistently pursue their argument . . . and yet manage to write beautiful, effortless prose."

Anke Timmerman | Chemical Heritage

"This is a terrific study, accessible, based in concrete archival research, and well connected to contemporary discussions. It gives new direction to thinking about the role of alchemy in the social and cultural life of early modern Europe. By diffracting the light usually focused on prominent alchemical figures in the history of science and medicine, Nummedal adds a much needed cultural dimension to the understanding of how alchemical identities were shaped in early modern Europe and to how they in turn influenced the social and intellectual world around them."

Bruce T. Moran | Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Nummedal’s Alchemy and Authority should be read not just by historians of science but also by historians interested in court culture. Her work offers a new look at the dynamic relationship between the construction of natural knowledge and political authority that many historians will benefit from reading."

Darin Hayton | Renaissance Quarterly

"Alchemy and Authority makes a significant contribution to the history of early modern science, and also provides some valuable material for the study of early modern state-building and court culture. . . . This extremely readable and enjoyable book has much to offer historians and literary scholars of a variety of backgrounds."

Paul Brand | German History

"The title of this book, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire, aptly embraces its multiple but related themes. On one hand, it is about the efforts of early modern alchemists to construct a kind of professional authority for themselves and about the necessary but sometimes tragic relationships of alchemists to the political authorities that patronized them and capitalized their workshops. But it is also about how 'authority,' in its deeper meaning of 'authorship,' played a significant role in creating and shaping public stereotypes of the alchemist...Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire shows us that the language and methodology of alchemy and mining were similar and that patrons expected similar solutions from alchemists and metallurgists, who were in many cases the same clients. This is an important step in properly contextualizing early modern alchemy."

Jole Shackelford | ISIS

"Nummedal describes alchemy in the Holy Roman Empire very convincingly as a complex problem of scientific, economic, and social history."

Zeitschrift fur Historische Forschung (translated from German)

Table of Contents

List of Figures  
Note on Early Modern Weights and Measures  
Introduction  1
1. Assembling Expertise  
2. The Alchemist’s Personae  
3. Entrepreneurial Alchemy  
4. Contracting the Philosophers’ Stone  
5. Laboratories, Space, and Secrecy  
6. Betrüger on Trial  
Conclusion: The Problem of Authority  
Selected Bibliography  

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